Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Green Hair Theory

In his story for The New York Times last year, The Trolls Among Us, Mattathias Schwartz interviewed Jason Fortuny, an unrepentant internet troll. Fortuny was responsible for pranks like The Craigslist Experiment, where he posted as a woman looking for sex, and then posted the resulting emails from men. The experiment resulted in lost jobs, breakups, and a judge’s ruling against Fortuny that required him to pay $74,252.56 in damages and fees.

Fortuny is undoubtably a fucked up dude, but wisdom can come from unexpected places. The story included this exchange between Fortuny and the reporter.

“You have green hair,” he told me. “Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.”

“That’s uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you’re a terrible reporter.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“That’s a very interesting reaction,” Fortuny said. “Why didn’t you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?” If I were certain that I wasn’t a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

To be clear, it was not my intent to troll the SEO community last week. I was having a rant – absolutely – but I really believed what I was saying. A troll does it for the reaction. For me, the reaction was not the point. In fact, it’s been the least fun thing ever.

My purpose was to encourage people to think twice before turning to SEO – to worry about making something great before they worry about its search engine placement. Turns out, the good SEOs know that already – they’re just using a buzzword acronym to describe what they do instead of calling it what I would: writing, editing, strategy, creative direction, making something great.

To the people out there doing good work for real clients under the auspices of SEO: I’m sorry. I lumped you in with the bastards because I thought of what you did as web development, not SEO. I cast too wide a net and caught some good fish in there with the bad. I apologize.

The real problem here is not those people, it’s the people I was talking about in my original post: the Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists. The people who “employ botnets, third-world labor, and zombie computers to blanket the web with link spam.” If you don’t think those things (and worse) happen, or that they’re not targeting Google just like you are, I’m afraid you’re the one who’s naive. I hope we can all agree that those practices are evil, no matter what they’re called.

If there is going to be such a thing as “good SEO,” then the good guys need to fix their industry – put a stop to the evil practices or find some way to distance themselves from the evildoers. The way to silence critics is not to attack the critic, but to change the target of the criticism (especially if the criticism is justified). Nearly all of the defenses of SEO I read in the last week included an admission that there are people out there doing evil. So I ask the good SEOs: What are you doing to clean up your industry? Perhaps if you did more, you wouldn’t have to endure the regular bleats of frustration from people like me.

As for me, I have no interest in being a leader for the anti-SEO crowd or a whipping boy for the SEOs. I’m just a guy who posted a rant on his weblog. That’s pretty much what blogs are for.

So here, in the last few seconds of my fifteen minutes of SEO infamy, I wanted to leave you with the Green Hair Theory, and the words of another fucked up dude. If someone tells you that your hair is green, the only reason to get defensive is if it’s true.

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Update: Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land, who took me to task last week, posts How Link Spammers Killed My Wife’s Web Site. He says: “If you’re link spamming, you suck. If you know someone who is link spamming, they suck – and you should tell them so.” Great work, Danny. This is how you take back your industry. I just wish it was on Search Engine Land where it’d be seen by more in the SEO community, instead of a personal site. But hey, it’s a start. Maybe they’ll find it in a search engine.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I live in San Francisco and make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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